On my 20th Anniversary at the American Academy of Religion

Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Warren Felt Evans
Twenty years ago I presented my first conference paper at the American Academy of Religion held in Chicago. I presented a fairly good paper on 19th century religious eccentric Warren Felt Evans and his Swedenborgian influences. I love religious eccentrics. I remember walking through some very crowded and stuffy hallways to get to the room where I was supposed to present, my lucky egg nog latte in hand. I also remember that I knew almost nothing about the American Academy of Religion (AAR) or the group that I was about to meet for the first time, a special session on Swedenborg comprised mostly of devotees. I wasn’t nervous so much as wanting to get it over with since it was miserably hot in that hallway.

The point of the story is not to laud my accomplishments at presenting at the AAR while I was a first-year graduate student. Though trumpeting one’s accomplishments is certainly not unknown in this business. The point of the story is that this was the first and last time I presented on 19th century “ American” religion.  My mentor, the director of my dissertation, and for the last 20 years, my oracle/friend, thought my presentation was great. She was very happy that it was accepted, but she also told me that it would probably be the last time it would ever happen.  Why?  Because as a Latina, any hopes I had a breaking into the field of American religious history would have to include talking about, reading about, and eventually writing about my people. My mentor told me the chances of getting a job in American history, religious or otherwise were next to nil unless I wrote about some aspect of Latino/a religious life.  So, with that bit of reality sinking in, I put my 19th-century religion files away.  All my xeroxed copies of Evan’s books, pages and pages of his musings on Swedenborg, Hinduism, Buddhism and hashish, the dude was fun!  All locked away in my file boxes. I would be able to re-visit Evans if and when I received tenure at a respectable institution and then and only then would I be able to pursue what the academy viewed as a “personal” piece. The “one and done” article or monograph on Evans that would only be acceptable once my other work on Latino/a religion established my street cred as a legitimate scholar. My fascination with Evans was a hobby. The academy, my mentor, assured me, would view any product on him coming from me as a hobby, an oddity that detracted from my otherwise strong and rigorous “research agenda.”

Walking through the cavernous San Diego Convention Center last week on my way to sessions focusing on Latino/a religion and Pentecostalism, it seems that these 20 years represent a full circle for me. I am glad that I my mentor directed my often stumbling steps.  My curiosity and penchant for procrastination would have led me to be a dabbler in many fields without ever sinking deeply into the one that would secure employment for me. It was also a bittersweet 20th anniversary since the Swedenborg group no longer exists, having been disbanded and subsumed into the “New Religious Movements” group years ago. Despite my desires, I have not been able to return to my Evans files and work on this most fascinating former Methodist evangelist. Is it really the well-worn “I have no time,” or “I have so much on my plate” or “I’ve moved on to something else."  Or is it that, like my mentor’s tough words to me 20 years ago, I have internalized the reality of “American” religion as meaning “for whites by whites,” and therefore decided to self-segregate to the safe harbors of Latino/a religion because that was and is what is expected of me? I have been in this business a long time, all my current projects are part of my continued research agenda set course 20 years ago, and while  I don’t have a tenured position,  I am free to write whatever I want. I can take a summer off, head to New Hampshire, take my files, now scanned for portability, with me, peek around the archives, and write. Isn’t that what this business is supposed to be about really? Pursuing our interests, our passions, contributing to the larger field? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, all I know is once the hustle of looking for the first job is over, the anxiety of the mid-career blues is tempered, and you begin to look at “senior status” in the face, maybe its time to do what you want. Maybe Warren Felt Evans has been sitting around way too long, reading about Hinduism and Swedenborg and smoking hashish without anyone paying any attention. These  religious eccentrics are the ones I used to read about when I was in jr. high, wondering what kinds of crazy spiritual worlds were out there for me to write about one day. Now that I have that rarest of jobs, in the most privileged of professions, these long-ago internalized classist and racialized realities of this field still being realities should not matter because as a soon-to-be-senior scholar, I’m allowed my eccentricities and my hobbies. So I’ll see you in New Hampshire.


Karen Johnson said…
Arlene-thanks for writing this. I'm not surprised at how race shaped the research path you chose, but hadn't thought too deeply about how "American" religious history is racialized. I'm thankful for your work though! Happy researching as you return to this passion!

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